A true story.

I’m sitting on the graduate admissions committee for the physics department at a major research university. Across the table, fellow committee member Prof. A is perusing the file of an applicant who is on the bubble. Prof. A turns to Prof. B next to him and says, “Did you see this one? The student has a Masters degree in Divinity.”

Now, you know me. Not really the Divinity-School type. But still, I’m thinking, that’s interesting. Shows a certain intellectual curiosity to study religion and then move on to physics. There’s some successful tradition there.

But Prof. A shakes his head slowly. “I would really worry about someone like this, that they weren’t devoted enough to doing physics.”

Prof. B nods sagely in assent. “Yes, you have to be concerned that they just don’t have the focus to succeed.”

The student didn’t get in.

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67 Responses to Focus

  1. Ambitwistor says:

    I know of a physics department which accepted a philosophy major with little prior experience in physics. “Lack of focus” did not turn out to be a problem at all. (The lack of physics expertise, however, did become an issue.)

  2. HRA says:

    If you’ve ever known someone who did a M.Div – you know that they definitely have the ‘focus to succeed.’ It’s a LONG intensive degree.

    Prof. A and Prof. B were obviously more worried about the religious aspects of the student rather than anything else.

    Just for the record – having faith, or an M.Div, does not make one a scientific moron. There are some Christians who are excellent scientists and vice versa.

  3. adam says:

    It’s unfortunate when decisions like that are made based on a character construction that is larger than the evidence can support. As for guessing which grad students will make the research grade, I am not convinced that graduate admissions boards are necessarily getting it right in general (and it’s a hard thing to do, of course, given how different research life is).

  4. Rob Knop says:

    That is (a) complete plausible, and (b) the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.

    Physics academia is ill, very ill.

    At Vanderbilt, we admitted and heavily recruited a student who has spent a lot of her time trying to balance music and physics. I believe she has a masters degree in some sort of music, although I could be remembering wrong. And she certainly wants to continue with music.

    As much as I bitch about tenure at Vanderbilt, in a lot of ways we have a sense of perspective that is lacking at the “top” Universities. In any event, I would say that the Vanderbilt Physics department of today, despite some very serious flaws, is really a pretty good place in the scheme of things.


  5. Nate says:

    Sounds like the student dodged a bullet there. I wouldn’t want to go to a university with professors who clearly are eschewing looking for real evidence rather than referring to their own preconceptions. If you have the ability to look broadly at the world, and study intensely in multiple unrelated disciplines, you probably do have the focus.

    Of course, this is further evidence of why the assault on academia is a particular threat. When you do start to have a large subset of credentialed ‘scientists’ going back to god as the reason for all things, then other scientists will feel a particular impulse to set aside their objectivity in favor of fighting back against a particular trend. It’s a sad state.

  6. Khurram says:

    Obviously this student wants to be devoted to physics and has put a lot of time into making this decision. Otherwise they wouldn’t be applying to physics grad school!
    Doing physics and believing in God (we don’t really know if this student believed in God-maybe he was just interested in the subject?) might be contradictory to some. Like Sean notes, there are a lot of brilliant physicists that are interested in religion and practice their respective religions.
    How would we like it if the tables were turned? A person with a physics degree wants to go to Divinity School. (It’s happened atleast once I’m sure). The admissions committee has the same type of conversation and the student doesn’t get in because “I would really worry about someone like this, that they weren’t devoted enough to God”. It’s a bad stereotype.

  7. grad student says:

    I am sorry to not joining you in blasting that decision. I think it makes sense at a lot of different levels. There are only so many reasons you need before not admitting somebody who is borderline – you are looking for negatives rather than positivies at some level. Variety is nice but you should be looking to specialize at some point. Liberal arts is awesome, but there is a reason you want to get a graduate degree….

  8. Scott says:

    What a disgrace. The funny thing is, the issue here seems completely orthogonal to religion: it seems like it would put passionate believers and atheists on one side, and the c.v. padders on the other.

  9. Mark says:

    This indeed seems like a silly discussion, and I wouldn’t agree with it. But I very much doubt that religion had anything to do with it, as a number of commenters seem to think. I expect that a Masters in literature, history, or anything else completely separate from physics would have prompted the same response.

  10. Mark B. says:


    That pisses me off something fierce, though I suppose I have to admire the honesty of it. It’s not like it would be difficult to find some other reason to justify a decision like that. I’m sure I could find a good reason to deny admission to just about anyone. But they actually stuck with the bad reason?

    I’ve heard similar things from a lot of academics who feel they need to protect me from myself (I’ve got degrees in philosophy and physics), by getting in the way, effectively preventing me from focusing on getting real work done. At one level I appreciate that it is usually meant in my best interest, but at some point I think they should take my word for it, and help me make it happen.

    Incidentally, Sean, you have probably outed to the applicant your university’s real reasons for denying admission. There can’t be very many M.Div’s applying to a school like yours, and it seems likely to me that they would hear about your blog. I hope they take the responses here as a sign that they are not alone in trying to walk a difficult line.

  11. anon. says:

    Are people here assuming an M.Div involves belief in God? From what I’ve seen, it’s just as often the opposite.

    Also, the idea that one has to focus all of their intellectual energy on one subject to succeed is laughable. I would say that many of the best physicists I know can also talk intelligently on a lot of other subjects, while many of the mediocre physicists are less able to do this.

  12. Sourav says:

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

    — Robert Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

  13. ike says:

    Would they have kept Georges Lemaitre out as well?

  14. Sean says:

    People who think it’s about religion are completely missing the point.

  15. Quasar9 says:

    Funny Sean, imagine if a ‘physics’ student or a ‘physics’ post grad were refused a place because he/she did not believe in a god or gods.

    Imagine if a ‘physics’ student was turned down because he/she did not believe in strings. Perhaps one could joke they had “no strings to pull”

    In 1671 the Royal Society asked for a demonstration of Newton’s reflecting telescope. Their interest encouraged him to publish his notes On Colour, which he later expanded into his Opticks. When Robert Hooke criticised some of Newton’s ideas, Newton was so offended that he withdrew from public debate. The two men remained enemies until Hooke’s death.

    It seems that no authenticated portrait of Hooke survives (Newton instigated the removal of Hooke’s portrait in the Royal Society).

  16. Counterfly says:


    You had to have known that the religion thing would distract from your real point. Why didn’t you change the story to, say, an MFA? Unless you’ve changed it to an M. Div from the real case, which doesn’t make any sense…

    In any case, I think you should think about how that student would feel were they to read this post.

  17. BlogReader says:

    Funny Sean, imagine if a ‘physics’ student or a ‘physics’ post grad were refused a place because he/she did not believe in a god or gods.

    If they were applying to a divinity school, then yeah I think that would be acceptable.

  18. Jeremy Chapman says:

    I think that the problem with this scenario is idea that the student may not have the focus necessary to do physics. A Master’s in anything shows an ability to focus, but it might also indicate that the student has chosen to change fields relatively late in the game. Of course, one shouldn’t be penalized by this, but it might make me question the applicants ability to be a successful long term researcher in physics. If the person was already on the bubble then they might not have had all of the physics background needed to demonstrate his/her ability to succeed in physics. A Master’s in a completely different field might be a good addition to the application that already has all the requirements for physics, but it shouldn’t be a substitution for any of them.

    I will admit that I have heard of several people with several different degrees being successful at physics…

  19. ike says:

    Got it – the key words are ‘sagely’ and ‘slowly’ – you must be referring to the authoritarian, power-hungry attitudes of certain ‘elder scientists’. There was a book about this published by a Russian scientist, Dudintsev, titled “White Robes” about the Russian scientific establishment.

    White Robes (Beliye odezhdi, 1987)

    “White Robes” also contains the idea of “parachutists”, described by Dudintsev this way:

    “People thrown from the destroyed world into the conditions of Soviet reality. Entrepreneurs and egoists in their souls, they looked around and saw that here, too, it was possible to live if they accepted the new “rules of the game”. And hiding their true nature they began to shout along with everyone else, “Long live the world revolution!” Masking their insincerity, they shouted louder and more expressively than others so that they quickly rose to the top, occupied leading posts and began to struggle for their own personal, comfortable lifestyle.”

    According to Dudintsev, this is why gray-haired academics supported Lysenko and gave the leadership the needed “scientific” conclusions; and this is why, says Dudintsev, “ministers built not what was needed by the people, but that which did not contradict their personal interests.” To Dudintsev it is obvious that the ecological disasters around the Aral Sea, the Volga, and Lake Ladoga are the work of the “parachutists”.

    Unfortunately, the whole text has yet to be translated into English (someone?)

  20. Eric Mayes says:

    Didn’t Ed Witten get a history degree before turning to physics? It’s a good thing Princeton didn’t turn him down because of this.

  21. Sourav says:

    Ed Witten was not on the bubble.

  22. Andrea says:

    I don’t for a minute think this is about religion, since the faculty members I know who would say something like that would say it if you replace “M.Div” with a master’s in history or English literature or anything else outside the physical sciences.

    The thinking is presumably some combination of “this student has already made one drastic change of direction — what’s to assure us that they won’t do so again, after we’ve spent limited resources on them?” and “this student apparently doesn’t believe that physics is the only field worth studying, and thus aren’t completely and utterly single-minded in their pursuit of the field, and aren’t a good candidate” (which I think is what was meant by “focus” — not that the student couldn’t work hard and focus on something, but that they had shown themselves to have interests outside physics and thus were suspect.

  23. terry says:

    My future professors at Arizona were amused and had to meet with me before letting me into the physics/astronomy program – they had never heard of someone coming from Accounting to Physics….but when they learned I wanted to study physics, so much so that I joined the military to get the money, they let me in.

    Maybe if the candidate had received a personal interview, s/he would have convinced the professors they had the “focus.”

  24. Eugene says:

    That’s a bit sad.

    I’d like to think that people who did something else, then decide to do physics, are those who actually have figured out what they really wanted to do. I mean, applying to grad school is not something that one does on a whim. You have to give up stuff, like jobs or years of life doing something else, ya know.

  25. dave tweed says:

    I don’t know about the american unviersity system, but certainly in the english system it’s very rare to actually really know what a first degree in specific subject will involve/cover, because people don’t really have much time to spend talking with you until you’re actually there (and their responsibility). To a certain extent the same things happens with a Masters. As someone with BA, MSc & PhD degrees in slightly different subjects it’s not a sign of a lack of focus as much as changing of detailled interests as I found out more. Of course, there may be skillsets you need for a given level of study that are really only obtained by doing a lower-level degree: I doubt someone who’s never done any mathematics could plausibly start an american-style-phd physics program, and certainly not an english-style-phd physcis program.